5th SUNDAY OF EASTER
1 John 4:7-21
Todays reading from the first letter of John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
Most of us have probably not quite reached the kind of perfection of love that John calls us to. I know that I still struggle with fearfulness, and often more so as I get older. But I’m convinced that the author of 1 John is right. I’d even go so far as to say that the opposite of love is not hate but fear.
Understand that I’m talking about Godly love here, agape in the Greek, not erotic love. Maybe the opposite of erotic love is hate, but the opposite of Godly love is fear.
Earlier this week I commented to someone that what stands between us and being able to love our neighbor as ourselves is fear and ego. Then I remembered a story I heard about man in AA who was doing the 5th Step. This step says: “admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs.”
The requirement is to honestly list your character defects and to tell them to another person, sometimes a sponsor, sometimes a clergy person, but someone who can hold you accountable for honesty. This man described almost all his defects in terms of ego problems and when he finished, the person listening said, “What about your fear?”
“I’m not particularly fearful,” the man replied. But of course, all the ego issues could be related back to fear.
Insecurity, putting down others, seeking status, power, or wealth, seeking to hide the true self – all these involve fear.
So now I have to say that the one barrier to Godly love is fear. And I am convinced that a significant part of our spiritual journey is perfecting our ability to love all of our brothers and sister.
Jay Sidebotham, the rector of the church I attend in Chicago, is also a cartoonist. One of my favorites shows a family gathered around the dinner table – Mom, Dad, and two children. The young boy is saying grace, including this: “Dear God, I bet it’s hard to love everyone in the whole world. There are only four people in our family and I can never do it.!”
Godly love is hard. We need to remember that Godly love is more about respect and honoring the spirit of God in the other person than it is about liking them. You don’t have to be close friends with everyone, you don’t have to like everyone, you don’t even have to approve of everyone, as long as you can honor the spirit of God in them in spite of their “wrongness”
So how do we work towards this kind of love? There are two ways; one is to work on eliminating our fears and the other is to work on improving our ability to love others.
Both approaches require some self-awareness and self-honesty to begin. For example, ask yourself, “What do I fear?” What kinds of people make me fearful. What kinds of situations make me fearful. This self-assesment is always the first task.
Then it’s possible to work on those fears. I remember one day back in the 80’s when I left home in the car to begin a trip to Duluth or the Cities. As I pulled onto Highway 11, what flashed through my mind was a picture of me going into a ditch. This stunned me, because it had never happened to me before, and the picture made me afraid. I said to myself, “Maybe this is why older people often get so fearful. Well, I’m not going to pay attention to that image, I don’t want to live with that kind of fear.” Of course, that was not the end of it, but now I notice when things like that happen and I can stop myself from acting on it.
Another remedy is prayer. Ask God to help in your effort to cast out fear, to see God’s face in others, to help you be more mindful.
The same suggestions apply to developing your skill at Godly love. Start by asking questions of yourself. “Who do I despise or dislike? Why? What is it about them that hooks me?
Then work to eliminate these attitudes. Remind yourself that God loves us all. Am I looking down on these people?
Isn’t there anything about them that I might admire? Or feel compassion for? We can fight our impulses to exclude, to dislike, to fear, and to shame. And we can do it without punishing ourselves when we fail, because we’re all in the same boat. This is hard work, but it is work that Jesus has clearly called us to do.
And again, pray for help, courage, and guidance in changing yourself. Pray for patience with yourself. And pray for God to help you keep on with the work. We are all, each one of us, a work in progress.
The importance of this kind of work seems obvious. Not only has Jesus called us to love God and to love one another; not only was this kind of love the mark of the earliest Christian communities; but this kind of love is what can possibly solve the very worst of the world’s problems, if only more people would work toward it.
What’s at the root of racism? Fear of people who are different. What’s at the root of perfectionism? Fear of not measuring up to someone else’s expectations. What’s the root of homophobia? Fear of homosexuals. The very word phobia comes from a Greek word that means “fear.”
I looked up phobia on Google and there are so many different known phobias, I didn’t have time to read the whole list!
I’ve often heard that the cause of this or that war was a need or desire for more territory, but really the root cause is also fear. Wanting more than enough is an ego issue, whether for a person or for a nation, and is really the result of fear of others getting more or getting ahead or whatever.
Another key step in controlling the effects of fear in our lives, is to pay attention to what I usually call fear-mongering. This is when people or institutions use fear to manipulate people. It’s so common in our culture today that I think you can hear it almost every day of the week. The question is whether we can recognize it. Mindfulness is again the key. Question what people say and what they tell you. It’s amazing to me how much fear is spread on the public airwaves and in our daily conversations with people. You don’t have to call anyone on it, but please notice it and mark it for what it is. Otherwise it catches you unaware.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. . .Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” Let us work so we may truly walk in love as Jesus did. AMEN